E-mail From Alamut: In Search of the Assassins' Paradise

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I was once given a key to paradise,” says my Iranian guide, Mehrdad, a bearish, soft-spoken man who translates Italian essayists and teaches English in Tehran, “It was made in China, of plastic. The mullahs told us that the key would open the door to a golden palace with hundreds of rooms and a beautiful virgin in each room. You see, we were facing certain death — the Iraqis had poison gas.” Like hundreds of thousands of young conscripts in the Iran-Iraq war, Mehrdad was destined for a suicidal human-wave charge on the Iraqi lines. He was spared only by his commander's desire to be taught English.

The promise of paradise has long been to drive men into battle. But what has brought me to Alamut is the legend, chronicled by Muslim and Crusader historians, that Hasan-i Sabbah, leader of the 12th century Middle Eastern terror cult known as the Assassins, had built a simulacrum here of the sensual delights of Paradise to quicken his men's taste for martyrdom. The Assassins — a kind of al Qaeda of its time — operated by stealth, and armed only with daggers, they killed hundreds of princes, viziers, generals, and rival clergymen. According to legend, before being dispatched on a mission, an operative would be drugged into a deep sleep. He would wake in a lush garden filled with fountains, music and beautiful maidens. After cavorting briefly, he would be drugged back to sleep, and upon waking again would be told that he had tasted the paradise that awaited on the successful completion of his suicide mission.

Iranian officials are a bit ashamed of this fanatic lurking in their history, and tried to discourage me from going to Alamut, near Qazvin in northwestern Iran, about 80 miles northeast of Tehran. But Mehrdad and I pressed on anyway. We climb the steep rock outcrop atop which Alamut's castle glowers over a valley of cherry orchards in full bloom. Inside the castle, however, we find no trace of the legendary pleasure garden — no crumbling stones of a fountain or wild thorns descended from the garden's roses, only wind, gray rock and grasses. On the ramparts, we encounter a lone guard bearing a long staff.

“Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?” I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

“Of course not,” he replies angrily. “Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck.”

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself. And with such faith, who needs plastic keys?